Tag Archives: social media

The New Gatekeepers?

Speaking of media and information failures…

Any competent historian will confirm that propaganda and misinformation have always been with us. (Opponents of Thomas Jefferson warned that bibles would be burned if he were elected). The difference between that history and the world we now occupy is, of course, the Internet, and its ability to spread mis- and disinformation worldwide with the click of a computer key.

As a recent column in the New York Times put it, the Internet has caused misinformation to metastasize.

The column noted that on July 8, Trump had taken to Truth Social, his pathetic social media platform, to claim that he had really won the 2020 presidential vote in Wisconsin, despite all evidence to the contrary. Barely 8000 people shared that “Truth.” And yet 

Within 48 hours of Mr. Trump’s post, more than one million people saw his claim on at least dozen other sites. It appeared on Facebook and Twitter, from which he has been banished, but also YouTube, Gab, Parler and Telegram, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

The spread of Mr. Trump’s claim illustrates how, ahead of this year’s midterm elections, disinformation has metastasized since experts began raising alarms about the threat. Despite years of efforts by the media, by academics and even by social media companies themselves to address the problem, it is arguably more pervasive and widespread today.

It isn’t just Facebook and Twitter. The number of platforms has proliferated. Some 69 million people have joined those like Parler, Gab, Truth Social, Gettr and Rumble, sites that brag about being “conservative alternatives” to Big Tech.  And even though many of those who have flocked to such platforms have been banned from larger sites, “they continue to spread their views, which often appear in screen shots posted on the sites that barred them.”

When the Internet was in its infancy, I was among those who celebrated the diminished–actually, the obliterated–role of the gatekeeper. Previously, editors at traditional news sources–our local newspapers and television news stations–had decided what was newsworthy, what their audiences needed to know, and imposed certain rules that dictated whether even those chosen stories could be reported. The most important of those rules was verification; could the reporter confirm the accuracy of whatever was being alleged? 

True, the requirement that news be verified slowed down reporting, and often prevented an arguably important story from being published at all. Much depended upon the doggedness of the reporter. But professional journalists– purveyors of that much derided “lame stream” journalism–were gatekeepers preventing the widespread dissemination of unsubstantiated rumors, conspiracies and outright lies.

Today, anyone with a computer and the time to use it can spread a story, whether that story is verifiable or an outright invention. We no longer have gatekeepers. Even the larger and presumably more responsible platforms are intent upon generating “clicks” and increasing “engagement,” the time users spend on their sites. Accuracy is a minor concern, if it is a concern at all.

The Wild West of today’s information environment is enormously dangerous to civil society and democratic self-government. But now, an even more ominous threat looms: Billionaires are buying social media platforms. Elon Musk, currently the world’s richest man, now owns Twitter, “a social media network imbued with so much political capital it could fracture nations.”

It’s a trend years in the making. From the political largess of former Facebook executives like Sheryl Sandberg and Joel Kaplan to the metapolitics of Peter Thiel, tech titans have long adopted an inside/outside playbook for conducting politics by other means.

 But recent developments, including Donald Trump’s investment in Twitter clone Truth Social and Kanye West’s supposed agreement to buy the ailing social network Parler, illustrate how crucial these new technologies have become in politics. More than just communication tools, platforms have become the stage on which politics is played.

The linked article was written by Joan Donovan, research director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and it details the multiple ways in which these billionaires can deploy the power of social media to the detriment of American democracy. As she concludes:

In many ways, the infamous provocateur journalist Andrew Breitbart was right: politics are downstream of culture. To this I’d add that culture is downstream of infrastructure. The politics we get are the ones that sprout from our technology, so we should cultivate a digital public infrastructure that does not rely on the whims of billionaires. If we do not invest in building an online public commons, our speech will only be as free as our hopefully benevolent dictators say it is.

A world in which Peter Thiel and Elon Musk are informational gatekeepers is a dystopian world I don’t want to inhabit.

 

Restraining Power

The growing concerns about social media–especially platforms’ moderation of users’ posts–are just the most recent and visible examples of an older conundrum: how do we define and restrain the misuse of power?

When the U.S. Constitution was drafted, concerns about the infringement of individual rights focused almost entirely on government, because only government entities had the power to prescribe and proscribe individual behaviors and punish those who failed to conform. Accordingly, the Bill of Rights restrained only government (initially, only the federal government, which was seen as a greater threat than the state and local units of government that were included in its prohibitions after passage of the 14th Amendment.)

To state the glaringly obvious, in the 200+ years since passage of the original Bill of Rights, a lot of things have changed.

Governments aren’t the only entities exercising considerable authority over our lives–major corporations, a number of them global in scope, not only influence government but engage in negative behaviors that directly affect millions of people, from polluting the environment to exploiting third-world labor. Scholars have belatedly come to question whether the Bill of Rights shouldn’t be applied more broadly–to restrain all entities large enough or powerful enough to invade individual rights.

I have absolutely no idea how that might work.( It probably wouldn’t.) /That said, we are at a point where we absolutely must contend with the inordinate power exercised by private, non-governmental organizations, and especially by Facebook, Twitter, et al.

Robert Reich addressed that problem in a recent essay for the Guardian.

Twitter and Instagram just removed antisemitic posts from Kanye West and temporarily banned him from their platforms. It just goes to show … um, what?

How good these tech companies are at content moderation? Or how irresponsible they are for “muzzling” controversial views from the extreme right? (Defenders of West, such as the Indiana attorney general, Todd Rokita, are incensed that he’s been banned.) Or how arbitrary these giant megaphones are in making these decisions? (What would Elon Musk do about Kanye West?)

 Call it the Kayne West paradox: do the social media giants have a duty to take down noxious content or a duty to post it? And who decides?

As Reich quite accurately notes, these platforms, with their huge size and extraordinary power over what’s communicated, exert enormous sway over the American public. And they are utterly unaccountable to that public.

Two cases pending before the Supreme Court illustrate the underlying dilemma:

One case involves Section 230 of Communications Decency Act of 1996. That section gives social media platforms protection from liability for what’s posted on them. In that case, plaintiffs claim that social media ( YouTube in one case,Twitter in the other) led to the deaths of family members at the hands of terrorists. In another case, the plaintiffs are arguing that the First Amendment forbids these platforms from being more vigilant. That case arises from a Texas law that allows Texans and the state’s attorney general to sue  social media giants for “unfairly” banning or censoring them based on political ideology.

It’s an almost impossible quandary – until you realize that these questions arise because of the huge political and social power of these companies, and their lack of accountability.

In reality, they aren’t just for-profit companies. By virtue of their size and power, their decisions have enormous public consequences.

Reich is betting is that the Court will treat them as common carriers, like railroads or telephone lines. Common carriers can’t engage in unreasonable discrimination in who uses them, must charge just and reasonable prices, and must provide reasonable care to the public.

But is there any reason to trust the government to do a better job of content moderation than the giants do on their own? (I hate to imagine what would happen under a Republican FCC.)

So are we inevitably locked into the Kanye West paradox?

Or is there a third and better alternative to the bleak choice between leaving content moderation up to the giant unaccountable firms or to a polarized government?

The answer is yes. It’s to address the underlying problem directly: the monopoly power possessed by the giant social media companies.

The way to do this is apply the antitrust laws – and break them up.

My guess is that this is where we’ll end up, eventually. There’s no other reasonable choice. As Winston Churchill is reputed to have said: “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”

It’s hard to disagree. And actually, a far more aggressive approach to anti-trust would solve more problems than those we are experiencing with social media…

 

 

 

That Misunderstood First Amendment

I know that my constant yammering about the importance of civic education can seem pretty tiresome –especially in the abstract–so I was initially gratified to read Brookings Institution article focusing on a very tangible example.

Emerging research confirms the damage being done by misinformation being disseminated by social media, and that research has led to a sometimes acrimonious debate over what can be done to ameliorate the problem. One especially troubling argument has been over content that isn’t, as the article recognizes, “per se illegal” but nevertheless likely to cause significant. harm.

Many on the left insist digital platforms haven’t done enough to combat hate speech, misinformation, and other potentially harmful material, while many on the right argue that platforms are doing far too much—to the point where “Big Tech” is censoring legitimate speech and effectively infringing on Americans’ fundamental rights.

There is considerable pressure on policymakers to pass laws addressing the ways in which social media platforms operate–and especially how those platforms moderate incendiary posts. As the article notes,  the electorate’s incorrect beliefs about the First Amendment add to “the political and economic challenges of building better online speech governance.”

What far too many Americans don’t understand about freedom of speech–and for that matter, not only the First Amendment but the entire Bill of Rights–is that the liberties being protected are freedom from government action. If the government isn’t involved, neither is the Constitution.

I still remember a telephone call I received when I directed Indiana’s ACLU. A young man wanted the ACLU to sue White Castle, which had refused to hire him because they found the tattoos covering him “unappetizing.” He was sure they couldn’t do that, because he had a First Amendment right to express himself. I had to explain to him that White Castle also had a First Amendment right to control its messages. Had the legislature or City-County Council forbid citizens to communicate via tattooing, that would be government censorship, and would violate the First Amendment.

That young man’s belief that the right to free speech is somehow a free-floating right against anyone trying to restrict his communication is a widespread and pernicious misunderstanding, and it complicates discussion of the available approaches to content moderation on social media platforms. Facebook, Twitter and the rest are, like newspaper and magazine publishers, private entities–like White Castle, they have their own speech rights. As the author of the Brookings article writes,

Nonetheless, many Americans erroneously believe that the content-moderation decisions of digital platforms violate ordinary people’s constitutionally guaranteed speech rights. With policymakers at all levels of government working to address a diverse set of harms associated with platforms, the electorate’s mistaken beliefs about the First Amendment could add to the political and economic challenges of building better online speech governance.

The author conducted research into three related questions: How common is this inaccurate belief? Does it correlate with lower support for content moderation? And if it does, does education about the actual scope of First Amendment speech protection increase support for platforms to engage in content moderation?

The results of that research were, as academics like to say, “mixed,” especially for proponents of more and better civic education.

Fifty-nine percent of participants answered the Constitutional question incorrectly, and were less likely to support decisions by platforms to ban particular users. As the author noted, misunderstanding of the First Amendment was both very common and linked to lower support for content moderation. Theoretically, then, educating about the First Amendment should increase support for content moderation.

However, it turned out that such training actually lowered support for content moderation-(interestingly, that  decrease in support was “linked to Republican identity.”)

Why might that be? The author speculated that respondents might reduce their support for content moderation once they realized that there is less legal recourse than expected when they find such moderation uncongenial to their political preferences.

In other words, it is reasonable to be more skeptical of private decisions about content moderation once one becomes aware that the legal protections for online speech rights are less than one had previously assumed. …

 Republican politicians and the American public alike express the belief that platform moderation practices favor liberal messaging, despite strong empirical evidence to the contrary. Many Americans likely hold such views at least in part due to strategically misleading claims by prominent politicians and media figures, a particularly worrying form of misinformation. Any effort to improve popular understandings of the First Amendment will therefore need to build on related strategies for countering widespread political misinformation.

Unfortunately, when Americans inhabit alternative realities, even civic education runs into a wall….

 

 

A Compelling Read

Jonathan Haidt is a well-regarded scholar who has written a compelling article for the Atlantic, titled  “Why The Past Ten Years Of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” He begins by referencing the biblical story of Babel:

What would it have been like to live in Babel in the days after its destruction? In the Book of Genesis, we are told that the descendants of Noah built a great city in the land of Shinar. They built a tower “with its top in the heavens” to “make a name” for themselves. God was offended by the hubris of humanity and said:

Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.

The text does not say that God destroyed the tower, but in many popular renderings of the story he does, so let’s hold that dramatic image in our minds: people wandering amid the ruins, unable to communicate, condemned to mutual incomprehension.

Babel, according to Haidt, is not a story about tribalism. Instead, he insists it’s a story about the “fragmentation of everything.” And he makes a point that is often overlooked:  this fragmentation isn’t just happening between those who see themselves as red or blue, but within both left and right, and “within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.”

How have we come to this point? Haidt blames social media.The early Internet seemed to promise an expansion of co-operation and global democracy.

Myspace, Friendster, and Facebook made it easy to connect with friends and strangers to talk about common interests, for free, and at a scale never before imaginable. By 2008, Facebook had emerged as the dominant platform, with more than 100 million monthly users, on its way to roughly 3 billion today. In the first decade of the new century, social media was widely believed to be a boon to democracy. What dictator could impose his will on an interconnected citizenry? What regime could build a wall to keep out the internet?

The high point of techno-democratic optimism was arguably 2011, a year that began with the Arab Spring and ended with the global Occupy movement. That is also when Google Translate became available on virtually all smartphones, so you could say that 2011 was the year that humanity rebuilt the Tower of Babel. We were closer than we had ever been to being “one people,” and we had effectively overcome the curse of division by language. For techno-democratic optimists, it seemed to be only the beginning of what humanity could do.

Then, he writes, it all fell apart.

Haidt references the three major forces that social scientists have identified as collectively necessary to the cohesion of successful democracies: they are social capital–defined as extensive social networks with high levels of trust– strong institutions, and shared stories. And he points out that social media has weakened all three, as the platforms morphed from a new form of communication to a mechanism for performing –for what Haidt characterizes as the management of ones “personal brand.” Communication became a method for impressing others, rather than a sharing that might deepen friendships and understanding. He blamed the introduction of the “like’ and “share” buttons–which allowed the platforms to gauge users’ engagement–as a critical turning point.

As a social psychologist who studies emotion, morality, and politics, I saw this happening too. The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.

I encourage you to click through and read the entire, lengthy article, but if you don’t have time to do so, I’ll end this recap with the paragraph that struck me as a description of the most troubling consequences of our current use of these social media platforms.

It’s not just the waste of time and scarce attention that matters; it’s the continual chipping-away of trust. An autocracy can deploy propaganda or use fear to motivate the behaviors it desires, but a democracy depends on widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms, and institutions. Blind and irrevocable trust in any particular individual or organization is never warranted. But when citizens lose trust in elected leaders, health authorities, the courts, the police, universities, and the integrity of elections, then every decision becomes contested; every election becomes a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side.

Haidt’s very troubling conclusion: If we do not make major changes soon, then our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse.

I’m very afraid he’s right.

Social Media, Tribalism, And Craziness

If we are ever going to emerge from pandemic hell or semi-hell, we have to get a handle on two of the most dangerous aspects of contemporary life: the use of social media to spread disinformation, and the politicization of science–including, especially now, medical science.

Talking Points Memo recently ran a column (behind the paywall, so no link–sorry) from an expert in social media. That column made several points:

  •  fake news spreads faster than verified and validated news from credible sources. We also know that items and articles connecting vaccines and death are among the content people engage with most.
  • The algorithms used by social media platforms are primed for engagement, creating a “rabbit-hole effect”–it pushes users who click on anti-vaccine messages toward more anti-vaccine content. The people spreading medical misinformation know this, and know how to exploit the weaknesses of the engagement-driven systems on social media platforms.
  • “Social media is being manipulated on an industrial scale, including by a Russian campaign pushing disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.” Research tells us that people who rely on Facebook for their news about the coronavirus are less likely to be vaccinated than people who get their coronavirus news from any other source.

According to the column, the problem is exacerbated by the way in which vaccine-related misinformation fits into people’s preexisting beliefs.

I was struck by the observation that acceptance of  wild and seemingly obvious inaccuracies requires a certain “pre-existing” belief system. That, not surprisingly, gets us to America’s current, extreme political tribalism.              
 
Let me share some very troubling data: To date, some 86% of Democrats have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot–compared with only 45% of Republicans. A Washington Post survey found that only 6% of Democratic respondents reported an intent to decline the vaccine, while 47% of Republicans said they would refuse to be inoculated. 

Not to put too fine a point on it,  this is insane.

Aside from people with genuine medical conditions that make vaccination unwise, the various justifications offered for denying the vaccine range from hypocritical (“pro-life” politicians suddenly defending the right of individuals to control of their own bodies) to legally inaccurate (“freedom” has never included the right to endanger others—if it did, we’d have the “freedom” to drive drunk and ignore red lights), to conspiratorial (COVID is a “hoax” perpetrated by those hated liberals).

Now, America has always had citizens willing to make decisions that endanger others; what is truly mystifying, however, is why such people overwhelmingly inhabit red states— including Indiana. 

Every state with large numbers of people who have refused vaccination is predominantly Republican. In several of those states, hospitalizations of unvaccinated COVID patients threatens to overwhelm health care systems. New York, a blue state, has five Covid patients hospitalized per 100,000 people, while red state Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis has actually barred businesses from requiring patrons to show proof of vaccination, has 34 per100,000.

DeSantis’ Trumpian approach is an excellent example of just how dramatically the GOP has departed from the positions that used to define it. Whatever happened to the Republican insistence that business owners have the right to determine the rules for their own employees and patrons? (They still give lip service to those rules when the issue is whether to serve LGBTQ customers, but happily abandon them when the decision involves the health and safety of those same patrons.)

And what happened to the GOP’s former insistence on patriotism? Surely protecting others in one’s community from a debilitating and frequently deadly disease is patriotic.

Tribalism has clearly triumphed over logic and self-interest. As Amanda Marcotte recently wrote in Salon,

getting the vaccine would be an admission for conservatives that they were wrong about COVID-19 in the first place, and that liberals were right. And for much of red-state America, that’s apparently a far worse fate than death.

Making vaccine refusal a badge of political affiliation makes absolutely no sense. It does, however, correspond to the precipitous decline of rationality in what was once the “Grand Old Party”—a party now characterized by the anti-science, anti-logic, anti-intellectualism of officials like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Jim Jordan, Paul Gosar, and Louie Gohmert (who was memorably described by Charlie Savage as “the dumbest mammal to enter a legislative chamber since Caligula’s horse”).

These mental giants (cough, cough) are insisting that vaccination will “magnetize” the body and make keys stick to you, and that Bill Gates is sneaking “tracking chips” into the vaccine doses. (As a friend recently queried, don’t most of those people warning against “tracking devices” own cell phones?? Talk about tracking…)

Talk about buffoonery.

The problem is, these sad, deranged people are endangering the rest of us.